It is 83 years this weekend since Europe crashed into war, beginning a global struggle that did not end until 1945 and which resulted in estimated deaths topping 75 million, many of them civilians. The Second World War was the largest conflict yet seen in the history of humanity, the most lethal, and the most destructive to that time. Yet, even as the world picked itself up again, afterwards, the spectre of another war in Europe loomed as the western and eastern blocs reoriented themselves in what became the twentieth century’s third great act, the Cold War.
That ended in the early 1990s, thanks in large part of Mikhail Gorbachev’s decision to allow the Soviet Union to dismantle. And while the spectre of nuclear armageddon did not actually go away, the risk of planetary insta-death did seem somewhat reduced. Certainly the idea of a territorial war in Europe seemed remote. And yet, thirty-odd years on, here we are. The Russian invasion of Ukraine clearly did not go as originally planned, and as matters stand it seems clear there will be no quick military end to that struggle – certainly not one that restores Ukranian sovereignty any time soon. Whether a political settlement is found remains to be seen, although it seems remote at this stage.
The enormous human cost of war
The human cost of these wars is, of course, immense: not just for the civilians involved, but also for those engaged in the fighting itself. It costs, mentally and physically. This issue was clear to some observers even in the mid-nineteenth century as war erupted across the United States, driven by railway and newly-invented technologies such as the breech-loading rifle and rotary machine gun. It came to a head during the First World War, where the intensity and duration of fighting was something not experienced in the wars of Napoleon’s time, a relentless assault on the mind as much as the body. And that was quite apart from the effects on civilians who, in theory, were not involved – but whose lives were turned upside-down and where, in any event, those in the combat zones could not escape.
We can be sure that something similar is being played out now in Ukraine. There will be a cost that remains partly invisible, even in our age of information-tech.
Humanity never learns.
Some years ago I wrote a book looking into the psychology of war – specifically, the psychology of ‘heroism’, using the New Zealand experience as a case study. It’s out of print, though there is a kindle edition for you to check out.